I walk past the Occupy Belfast protesters opposite St. Anne’s Cathedral nearly every day. It would be easy to sneer at them. They have some rather nice tents out of Decathlon, that well known bastion of anti-capitalism, and they seem to have a lot of fun. Not only are they not occupying anything more than Belfast’s new-but-now-traditional venue of left-wing protest, but they aren’t even properly persecuted. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cop there, let alone a raid. All the same, they’ve held out through a winter that has had its cold and wild spots between the mildness, and what’s wrong with a bit of fun anyway? Being young, and free, and thinking you’re about to change the world, it’s a lovely experience – perhaps we sneer at them because we’re jealous of them?
Are they changing the world? Probably not. They aren’t in the right place or the right time, but they are part of something that is. @OccupyBelfast – “We are the 99%”, as it styles itself on Twitter, babbles away via social media with Occupy Birmingham, and Occupy Bratislava, and Occupy Boston. Information surges into Lower Donegall Street through the capillaries of the internet from places where the students on the streets really are changing the world – from Cairo, and Hama, and Moscow. As I said, Northern Ireland in 2012 is not the right place or time to be in the centre of things. There are just too many other things in recent history to deal with here at this juncture. But if a wave spreads, you never know, you just never know.
And that’s the problem with talking about the likely impact of social media on the affairs of the world – we simply don’t know. Weak and inefficient Arab dictatorships were caught on the hop when the revolution started being spread by text message; but China’s security apparatus has been paranoid about the impact of mobile comms and the internet since before anyone else took them seriously. Just as the pen was often not mightier than the sword, Bahrain shows that the heavily armed Saudi urban pacification squad is mightier than the Nokia wielding teenager. Syria might well end up sending the same message.
It’s difficult for a non-Sinophone to get a decent handle on what’s happening on the internet in China, and not only because of language difficulties. The Great Firewall combined with China’s sheer size means that one fifth of humanity surfs through a virtual world only weakly connected with that inhabited by the other four fifths. Chinese surf for video clips on Youku and Tudou, not YouTube, while Weibo and Taobao are used instead of Twitter and eBay. Chinese exceptionalism is as powerful as that exhibited by any country on the planet, and it begins the moment you open your web browser.
In the 1930s, the talking cinema and the radio were the two powerful means of spreading information most recently to emerge on the scene. One transmitted simple information around the world instantaneously, so that a war that broke out in Asia made the living rooms and ministries of Washington and Berlin within minutes. The other transmitted the creations of the world’s leading directors and actors around the world in a matter of weeks or months, transmitting ideas more powerfully and faithfully than any stage piece or silent movie ever could.
While liberal democrats, especially on the left, had their great moments in the golden age of radio on cinema, from Casablanca to How Green is my Valley? to FDR’s fireside chats, Nazism and Communism were enthusiastic and skilled proponents of the new media of the day. Faced with information coming through normal channels, people can become very effective at sorting out propaganda from reality. When receiving information from unfamiliar sources, it takes time to learn to spot the subtle clues that alert one to the bogus. The broadcast of Hitler’s speeches on the radio was a major media event, and Leni Riefenstahl burnished the Nazis’ image while Fritz Hippler demonised their enemies. Stalin, too, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of cinema and its power to shape minds.
Just a few short decades later, radio was past its sell-by date as a vehicle for more than broadcasting pop songs, while the efforts of eastern Bloc cinema and television to sell the virtues of ‘really existing socialism’ seemed cheap and tawdry. By that stage, people had a better sense of when someone was telling the truth and when people were just making stuff up. It wasn’t that propaganda had died, still less than people had stopped believing it, but by that stage, it took time, money and talent to create believable propaganda. The first two were in perpetually short supply in the Communist world and the last wasn’t always available to the state. In the West, where all three resources were available in abundance, quality propaganda survived, but with limits. Not many even among its most die-hard fans saw Delta Force as a meaningful contribution to the debate on US Middle East policy. On the other hand, the relentless, decades long, campaign to normalise homosexuality through British television worked a treat. I’m one of its beneficiaries, and I’m delighted that people invested their time and skills to make it happen.
Most of us have been using social media for less than five years. Few of us understand exactly how any particular concatenation of stories arrives on our Facebook home page. Many of our online contacts are with people we’ve never met in real life; our capacity to judge their reliability as witnesses is limited. We are potentially suckers for the next great propagandist to come along. And I’m not sure we can do anything about that at this point in time.
Gil Scott-Heron’s poem identified the top-down nature of the last great information technology, television, as its critical weakness in promoting social change. Hierarchical, unidirectional, dependent on corporate or government sponsorship, it was not the vector for revolutions. Those watching TV would miss the revolution, which could only happen on the streets.
Today’s great information technology goes out onto the streets with us on our smartphones. It does not only convey information from top to bottom, but also from bottom to top and side to side. It continues to convey information, however, from top to bottom. A lot of information. In the internet age, those at the apex of politics, business or civil society still have enormously more leverage to convey information to the world at large than the average person. Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign is living proof of that, and his 2012 campaign might still underscore it.
The internet can still be used for top-down purposes, and some time soon somebody is going to use that to maximum effect, for good or ill. We lose sight of that at our peril.